Certain Women (2016)
The Criterion Collection
Kelly Reichardt has established herself as one of the greatest living American filmmakers with Certain Women, my favorite film of 2016, and perhaps her best in a career full of patient, revealing and intensely focused yet emotionally expansive films. It’s also her most gorgeous film yet, capturing the fading light of windswept Montana landscapes in all their plaintive beauty. (Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt even outdoes his remarkable Meek’s Cutoff photography here.) In Certain Women, there’s a repeated shot of a barn door opening to a snowy field, and it’s like the greatest wipe I’ve ever seen, opening up to an image of apparent stillness that nonetheless hums with possibility — an apt description of much of Reichardt’s work.
Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, the film’s triptych structure evades narrative cutesiness — stories overlap a bit, but with elusive implications — and thematic obviousness — the through-lines are more abstract, particularly in the film’s middle piece, a thrillingly elided enigma in which all the emotional mysteries are locked up in the expressions of Michelle Williams.
There are more traditional narrative pleasures in the first story, in which Laura Dern’s not-quite-indefatigable lawyer develops an unusual relationship with a pushy-then-worse client (Jared Harris) and the last, a tale of longing brimming up, as a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) becomes enamored with a lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who’s teaching a class in her small town, seemingly by some kind of serendipitous mistake — or not.
This final segment has garnered most of the attention — and not unjustifiably as Gladstone gives an almost painfully revealing performance — but the whole film has that kind of emotional acuity. This is a spare film filled with women who sublimate their feelings for various reasons, but when Dern listens patiently to her client break down in front of her or Williams drops just an ounce of the ingratiating façade used to convince an acquaintance to give her some sandstone she covets or Gladstone tucks a suddenly wild strand of hair behind her ear while she sees Stewart for the last time, the film seems to expand far beyond the limits of its frames.
Criterion’s Blu-ray, with a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, is a faithful depiction of the film’s 16mm photography, rendering the grain beautifully and offering detailed, sharp images throughout. Detail isn’t lost in the somewhat drab color palette, and brighter scenes, particularly those with snow on the ground, really pop. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately sparse, with every subtle gradation in sound design noticeable. Reichardt opts against a score, except for one scene, and the result is certainly effective.
Supplements feature a trio of new interviews. Reichardt discusses her attraction to Meloy’s stories and some of the changes she made, along with her experience shooting the film. Producer and longtime friend Todd Haynes gushes over Reichardt’s abilities, while Meloy talks about the genesis of the three stories and her appreciation for Reichardt’s interpretations. A trailer and insert with an essay by critic Ella Taylor are also included.
Criterion Collection / 2016 / Color / 1.85:1 /107 min / $39.95
It’s almost immediately apparent that E.A. Dupont’s Varieté is going to feature a stunning array of camerawork, beginning with a frame story in a prison packed with evocative imagery, including an overhead long shot of prisoners walking in circular formation, like gears in a grinding cog. That’s far from the only visual metaphor in this landmark German silent: The film’s most kinetic sequences feature trapeze performances, and the camera swoops like it’s a performer itself.
Dupont’s visual sense is restlessly creative, moving from striking close-ups to environment-establishing long shots. If there’s an opportunity to move the camera, he takes it, scurrying up to give us a better look at crucial details. But he’ll also let scenes play out, uninterrupted. Rather than seem harried or chaotic, all of these methods work to amp up this hothouse melodrama, in which a carnival barker named Huller (Emil Jannings, whose unrelentingly intense visage is used perfectly) self-destructs over his attraction to a mysterious dancer (Lya de Putti).
Her name: Berta-Marie, taken from the ship she was discovered on. A crusty old sailor tells Huller the ship was haunted, and if that’s not foreshadowing, I don’t know what is. But while Berta-Marie certainly isn’t averse to the way Huller begins ignoring his wife and child to pay attention to her, Dupont doesn’t really frame her as a seductress. Instead, Huller’s urges are entirely self-sourced, like a volcano inside of him that’s threatening to erupt at any second. When he leaves his wife for Berta-Marie, and they flee to start a new life, the release valve is opened a little. But it’s not long before the pressure starts building again, and Dupont applies it masterfully all the way to an inevitable finish.
Kino’s Blu-ray features a 1080, 1.33:1 tinted transfer, sourced from the 2015 restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and Filmarchiv Austria. It’s an impressive restoration, managing the damage and materials deterioration carefully and offering an image with great depth and detail. The tiny vertical scratches that run throughout can’t diminish the clarity of the underlying image. Aside from a few hiccups here and there, the image is also quite stable. Two scores are included: one created by a class at Berklee, which works pretty well considering the number of composers involved, and a less traditional score from British band The Tiger Lillies, which traffics in their usual brand of cabaret/punk music, with vocals.
On the bonus material front, Kino’s release arguably outperforms the UK disc from Masters of Cinema released earlier this year, which was sourced from the same restoration. The American version of the film isn’t here, but instead we get a whole separate film: Dimitri Buchowetzki’s adaptation of Othello (1922), starring Jannings as Othello and De Putti as Iago’s wife, Emilia. The elements it’s sourced from are pretty dupey, but it’s nice to have anyway. Also included: a visual essay by Bret Wood on Dupont’s style and a featurette on the Berklee orchestra.
Kino Lorber / 1925 / Color tinted / 1.33:1 / 95 min / $29.95
The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV, 2017)
Oh, the indignities of growing old. In Albert Serra’s painstakingly observed interpretation, the French king Louis XIV wastes away, surrounded by a bevy of well-wishers and physicians, intent on not acknowledging that fact. Every small victory, like a bite of biscuit or a hat doffed to bid farewell is greeted rapturously, like a minor miracle has been performed. Throughout the film, the king’s doctors and attendants keep optimistically asserting that he looks like he’s getting better.
If the title of the film (and, of course, the history of Europe’s longest-reigning monarch) didn’t give it away, it would still be apparent that there is to be no dramatic recovery. As Louis, icon Jean-Pierre Léaud offers a performance that’s stunning in the delicacy of its movement.
An early scene sees the king being afforded a rare pleasure — a brief visit from his beloved dogs — and the slight trembling of Léaud’s cheeks as he grasps the fleeting moment is a potent capsule of heartbreak. The subtlety of this expression is remarkable — but it’s only the beginning, as his performance becomes stiller and yet more absorbing as the film proceeds. Léaud is constantly ensconced, from the massive wig on his head to the layers and layers of clothing he seems to be shriveling up inside. But I’m convinced he would perfectly capture the man’s ever-mounting sense of smallness and decay even without the makeup or costuming.
The follow-up to Story of My Death (2013), Serra’s film sees him returning to familiar themes of epochal shifts and mortality, though his sense of history is much less idiosyncratic here than in that Dracula/Casanova take. His slow-cinema approach is matched here by a kind of narrative intensity, with all extraneous story elements stripped away. Will a legion of medical professionals be able to save the king’s gangrenous leg? Will his legacy continue? Will he finally get that glass of water served in the crystal he wants it in? The profound and the absurd still comingle here, but the film’s purpose feels more tightly honed.
Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release presents the film in a 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer that looks fantastic. There may be no cinematographic cliché more overused than “painterly,” but you’ve got it to apply it here to Serra’s Rembrandt-like gradations of light and shadow. Fine detail is nice in this transfer, while colors are consistently rendered. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is subtly immersive in its usage of spare details.
Extras include a NYFF Q&A with Serra and Léaud, as well as Serra’s 2013 concert short Cuba Libre, also available on Second Run’s Story of My Death disc. A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Jordan Cronk are also included.
Cinema Guild / 2017 / Color / 2.35:1 / 118 min / $34.95
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996) — DVD only
Icarus is one of the key curators of Akerman’s work on US home video, releasing many of her lesser-seen films and at least one key masterpiece: From the East (D’est, 1993), her mesmerizing study of the soon-to-be no-more Soviet bloc.
Their latest Akerman release isn’t quite as essential, but it’s the kind of film that could be valuable both to an Akerman fanatic and an Akerman neophyte. Made for the long-running French television series Cinéma, de notre temps (that stalwart of Criterion Collection bonus material), Akerman’s entry could act as both an introduction to unfamiliar work and as a recontextualization of deeply familiar work. Maybe this is more DVD bonus material territory than main-feature territory, but it’s a fascinating film in its own right.
Reluctant to include any new footage, Akerman was eventually persuaded to shoot something featuring herself, so the film opens with a series of shots in her apartment. She looks at the camera and reads from a script, each cut bringing the camera closer and closer until she fills the frame. She confesses her misgivings about the whole project, and makes observations about the nebulous line between documenting herself and playing a character. Both in her performance (and it is consciously “performed”) and the camerawork, Akerman seems to be pitting a deliberately anti-cinematic style against fundamental questions about what cinema means.
If it wasn’t obvious that Akerman had an almost peerless grasp of cinematic form, the film’s second segment proves it, cutting together clips from many of her previous films, interspersing iconic shots from Jeanne Dielman (the meatloaf! of course, the meatloaf) and D’est (one of the many gorgeous, enigmatic tracking shots) with pieces from harder-to-see films, like anti-capitalist musical Golden Eighties (1986) and several funny, piercing moments from Portrait of a Young Woman at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (1994). If nothing else, the film will make you yearn to see the films surrounding these scenes and remind you just how underrepresented Akerman is on US home video, the efforts of Icarus and Criterion aside.
In her introduction, Akerman comes across as an artist obsessed with cinematic truthfulness, and the moments from her films confirm it. There’s not a frame that doesn’t represent some kind of unvarnished honesty about the world we live in.
Icarus Films / 1996 / Color/black and white / 1.33:1 / 64 min / $24.98
Beggars of Life (1928)
Though it’s likely not the first film one attaches to the names William Wellman, Louise Brooks or Wallace Beery, Beggars of Life is as good as one might hope for when seeing those three listed in the same place. Genuinely thrilling, with Wellman’s keen action instincts making for some exciting railroad sequences, the film is also psychologically probing and rousingly funny, at points.
Only several minutes in, the film delivers an impressively modern sequence, as Richard Arlen’s hobo smells breakfast in a house and peers in, hoping he can convince the owner to give him a plate. It turns out that man hunched over in anticipation of the food on the table is dead, and Louise Brooks is dressed in his clothes, preparing to make her escape after the murder.
A flashback, with Brooks’ face imposed over the events, recounts the horrors the man, her stepfather, perpetrated upon her. Watched so closely after the Twin Peaks finale, it was impossible not to associate this scene with Coop’s face imposed over the events in the sheriff’s station. (In the context of this film, the moment with Brooks’ face feels nearly as enigmatic.)
Brooks and Arlen hit the road together, and the temporary arrangement becomes more permanent after his attempts to teach her rail-hopping don’t quite go as planned. Among all its other virtues, the film is also sweetly romantic, the pair’s relationship blossoming into idyllic dreams inside a field of haystacks.
Naturally, when Beery shows up, the film shifts gears again into a more raucous mode. He plays Oklahoma Red, a hobo big shot who first appears swilling stolen liquor and singing. Is he a villain? A helper? Some kind of mischievous neutral character? At points, he plays all three roles, striking a midway point between menacing and charming. Paired with Brooks’ coolly understated approach, the two performances achieve a kind of perfect symbiosis.
Kino’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer is sourced from 35mm film elements from the George Eastman Museum, featuring about-average image quality for a film of this vintage. There’s an inherent softness to much of the image, with detail of faces and clothing that never quite gets there, but damage has been minimized and the presentation has a pleasing consistency. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track presents a lively score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, based on selections from the original release cue sheet.
Two audio commentaries are nice inclusions: one from Wellman’s son, actor and historian of his father’s work, William Wellman Jr. and one from Thomas Gladysz, founding director of the Louise Brooks Society. A booklet essay by critic Nick Pinkerton offers some excellent contextual information on “hoboing” and the film’s journey from page to screen.
Kino Lorber / 1928 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 81 min / $29.95
The Treasure (Comoara, 2015) — DVD only
Like countless festival darlings, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure made a reasonably substantial splash at Cannes in 2015, winning the Prix Un Certain Talent prize and garnering plenty of positive notices from critics, and then seemingly fading away into the ether.
Now, it’s been nearly two years since the film’s limited US release, and it’s finally arrived on US home video, in an unsurprisingly underwhelming DVD-only release. Perhaps Criterion or another label with an IFC deal was considering picking up the film, but it’s not hard to see why other labels must have eventually passed. Porumboiu is one of the marquee names in Romanian filmmaking, but this is a minor effort.
All that early buzz focused on the film’s ending — the DVD’s lead pull-quote is A.O. Scott gushing about the “punchline — and one can understand why, as it starkly and charmingly departs from the deadpan bureaucratic comedy of the rest of the film. But viewed with some distance from the hype surrounding the film’s premiere, this is a conclusion that mostly just provokes a shrug.
More memorable is the sequence in which protagonist Costi (Toma Cuzin) and his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) hire a guy with a metal detector to search Adrian’s family’s property, reputed to have buried treasure somewhere on its grounds. Here, Porumboiu’s sense of low-key comedy shines, as a series of minor exasperations mount in a tidily built tower of annoyance. The following 20 minutes just feel like stalling to get to that ending. Is it really worth it?
Even taking into account the limitations of the format, the image on IFC’s DVD release is not great, plagued with a fuzziness that doesn’t do any favors to a film mostly composed in medium and long shots. Aside from some trailers, you won’t find any extras either.
IFC / 2015 / Color / 2.35:1 / 89 min / $24.98
The Big Knife (1955)
The follow-up to one of the greatest noirs ever, the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife turns his attention to Hollywood venality. Based on the Clifford Odets’ play (revived on Broadway a few years ago, but otherwise fairly low-profile), the film is patently ridiculous melodrama, florid language and amped-up emotions stewing together inside the Hollywood estate of marquee icon Charles Castle (Jack Palance).
Under Aldrich’s direction, this material is compulsively watchable, careening from heightened moment to heightened moment with a cast full of actors hungry to devour each scene they’re in. Palance grimaces and grumbles, determined not to re-sign his studio contract, despite the best efforts of boss Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger), who has a host of blackmail tactics up his sleeve. Castle wants to reconcile with his semi-estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), but his attentions are divided between her, Hoff, liquor and the host of visitors that traipse through his house, including Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters.
Like Mike Nichols with his adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Aldrich understands that a theater-to-film adaptation can embrace the limitations of so-called “stagy” material, and he turns Castle’s home into a pressure-cooker, with only a handful of scenes that venture outside its confines. The material may be pulpy — even risible in its depiction of substance abuse — but it’s easy to buy in with the way Aldrich builds the framework for it.
Arrow’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is heaven for lovers of black-and-white films with heavy grain structure. Sourced from a new 2K restoration, the image handles the grain exceptionally well, with only a few moments of density fluctuation scattered here and there. Fine detail is abundant, grayscale separation is rich and images are consistently sharp. The uncompressed 2.0 mono mix sounds good on the surface, though there’s a persistent low-level hiss that’s noticeable if turned up loud enough.
Extras include an audio commentary from critics Glenn Kenny and Nick Pinkerton and an archival interview with Saul Bass on his titles work. A trailer and a vintage featurette are also included.
Arrow Video / 1955 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 111 min / $39.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.